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Language of hope

The UK launch of the European Year of Lifelong Learning takes place in Edinburgh next week. Ian Nash reports on the international drive to improve literacy levels. Clare Jenkins looks at two acclaimed schemes

"I feel sad when I remember what has happened in my country. Our houses were destroyed. My brother died in the civil war." says Somali refugee Muna Jama.

Muna one of a group of refugee mothers who are writing a book about their lives using a Pounds 5,000 grant from the European Year of Lifelong Learning.

The project has turned into a varied learning experience - through it the women are coming to terms with the past, improving their literacy and teaching others about their culture.

The women are members of the Gatehouse family literacy project based at the Princess junior school in Moss Side, Manchester. They meet at the school each week to learn English and take part in the Soodhawada (Welcome) storytelling workshop. Aided by a translator they swap tales of their lives then and now. In July the results will appear in print in a book called When I Was Young. It is being published by Gatehouse whose slogan is "a beginner writer isn't a beginner thinker".

One of the women, Europe Abdi from Somalia says: "I feel happy when I see my group. My group is a very happy one. I feel sad when I remember my family, my friends, my country and my people."

The book attempts to spread knowledge of their lives. "English people don't understand about our lives," says Fatima Munin, a spokeswoman for the mothers.

After the storytelling the women join their children for a lesson. In one class peg dolls (see above) were made by the pupils.

Headteacher Katherine Samad says: "It's a wonderful project. The high profile and status it gives to the families, some of whom have suffered racism, gives them a sense of belonging. And in terms of self-esteem, it's been invaluable. These children are low in the pecking order but they now see themselves as people with status."

Elaine Bishop, a Section 11-funded nursery teacher, says: "It gives the teachers greater empathy with the children. And it's nice to see how the children come on. They're lively and much more interactive. They work hard. They see their contributions are valued."

The year-long storytelling project is due to end in July, but Gatehouse is applying for an extra year. Another language group has developed from the storytelling session. Fund-raising co-ordinator Tom Woodin says: "It's about setting up sustainable structures as well as one-off projects."

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